Triathlon is the ideal tourist’s sport: While competitors inside the Olympic stadium see little of London beyond the stadium around them, the lucky triathletes rip around the very heart of the capital, surrounded by many of the landmarks that make London, well, London really.
The even better news is that the pleasure of racing the Olympic course isn’t only for those talented enough to be representing their countries. With the aid of a little local cunning, anyone can race triathlon on this wonderful route which slices through some of the capital’s most prime real estate, and all for less than the price of a pint of beer.
How do I know? Simple. Not only am I local, I devised the route for this little event while looking for a way to spice up my regular training in the city. So if you want a completely different way to see London at its best, and you fancy a spot of exercise at the same time, here’s how.
The Olympians will be swimming in the Serpentine, a beautiful boating lake in the centre of Hyde Park – and precisely where you’ll swim, too.
Because the £20 annual membership at the Serpentine swimming club lets you swim there between 6 and 9 every morning, 365 days a year (regulars break the ice for winter swims), that’s just six pence a swim. (True, travellers won’t swim here year-round, but let’s not quibble.)
It’s best to arrive as early as possible. Not only do you get a refreshingly tranquil swim despite being a stone’s throw from Oxford Street, it also means you can take in the rest of the route afterward without the crowds.
Up close, the Serpentine water does not look good, and its ducky aroma (it’s home to a lot of ducks) takes getting used to. But since leaping in with the British triathlon team for a story three years ago, I figured if it’s okay for the world’s best, then it can’t do me any harm. And three swimming years later, it never has.
With buoys marking out 200-metre lengths, you can easily swim either 750 metres for a sprint distance triathlon, or go whole hog with 1,500-m for a true Olympic distance. Just remember to watch where you’re going as, unlike a regular pool, Serpentine swim traffic goes both ways and colliding with fellow club members is frowned upon. If in doubt, wear a very bright swim cap.
Transition one: swim to bike
Now you need to get from water to wheels as fast as possible. The Olympians will be sprinting from the wet stuff on the north side of the lake across carefully laid matting to protect their delicate tootsies, before tearing around a bike course that runs around the park and down to Buckingham Palace. For this they will employ bikes that weigh less than the average envelope and cost more than a small yacht.
Your bike section will be tougher.
You’ll need to sprint from the water on the south side of the lake where the Serpentine swim club has its area, before hobbling painfully across the concrete to the changing room. Having swapped wetsuit for bike gear and stashed your change of clothes in the rucksack you’ve handily brought along for the purpose, it’s time to make a beeline for the “Boris bikes” racked behind the park’s Lido Café.
These bicycles-for-hire are named after London’s floppy-haired mayor, Boris Johnson, and are brilliant, although more for their ease of use than their technical prowess. In stark contrast to pro triathlon race machines, these bikes are heavier than a small yacht, yet cost less than the average sturdy envelope – a single pound pays for an hour.
Quite long enough for you to thunder out counterclockwise laps of the park’s perimeter road at a handy five kilometres each, until your legs fall off. The latter happens far more rapidly on a Boris because: a) you are lugging the weight of two bikes at once, all with the aerodynamics of a tall building; and b) a Boris only has three gears instead of 30. Just completing the bike section on one of these behemoths makes you harder than an Olympic triathlete.
Well done, although there’s no time for a breather yet. You’ve still got a run to do.
Transition two: bike to run
Having had their sightseeing, assuming they had time to look up from their handlebars that is, Olympians return to the north side of the Serpentine to ditch their rides and start pounding pavement for several laps of the lake itself.
You, on the other hand, will be dropping your bike at a brand-new location on the south side of the park – the joy of the Boris bike is it can be dropped at one of over 570 racks around the capital – and then stuffing your cycle helmet into your rucksack, before starting your run.
This will take you around the park perimeter, clockwise, allowing you to sample the park’s many delights while also laughing (quietly, and to yourself of course – remember how reserved we Brits are) at the ever-swelling swarm of commuters who by now will be scurrying through the same park on their way to work while you rack up a great workout.
Before completing your full lap however, divert out of the park’s southeast corner, just past the giant Achilles statue, and cross under the Wellington Arch while marvelling at its alabaster magnificence – though not for too long; you are racing, remember. Mark time at the crossing to Constitution Hill here while waiting for the lights to change (as this is no spot for jaywalking), and then dive down to Buckingham Palace before zooming onto the Mall for a triumphant finish across an imaginary tape, just by the temporary barriers closing the road halfway down for Olympic traffic.
Despite the Mall itself being the finish for the marathon,
the start for the road cycling events, and part of the triathlon course during the Olympics, it will be open to pedestrians at all other times.
Having finished, if you now turn right and wander into St. James’s Park you’ll soon come to an excellent coffee stall and a bridge with one of the greatest views of the London Eye.
Now relax, and bask in the glow of a job well done. Congratulations. Return to your hotel with your head held high and a warm glow of satisfaction wrapped around you before taking a well-deserved headlong dive into the breakfast buffet.
What you’ll need
Serpentine swim club (www.serpentineswimmingclub.com). Daily Serpentine swimming for just £20 annual membership, payable in person at your first swim
Barclays Cycle Hire, or ‘Boris Bikes’ as everyone in London calls them, can be hired for £1 an hour, plus a £1 fee for every 24-hour hire period initiated. Rides under 30 mins are free. Pay by card on the day, or register for a key in advance. www.tfl.gov.uk/roadusers/cycling/14808.aspx
Use the ‘London Cycle’ smartphone app to tell you where your nearest hire stations are all over the city along with real-time updates on bike availability to save you trekking to an empty rack